Monday, December 10, 2018

Farmcote, Gloucestershire


History in the hills

For my third reprise in this busy month, I offer a place I’ve actually already posted about twice. This multiplicity is an indication not that it’s somewhere of great architectural richness, because the building I’m focusing on is modest to say the least. It’s because the place means a lot to me: for the atmosphere (especially for the quietude that surrounds it), for the layers of history visible in and around and beneath it, and for memories associated with it. So here’s Farmcote once more, ten years on from when I first wrote about it. I called that original post The End of the Road...

Take the steepest and narrowest of the roads leading out of the town where I live, a route that rises rapidly up the Cotswold escarpment. Turn left along a narrower lane that leads up again through remote country dotted with the odd farm and racehorse stable and bounded with fields where the brown ploughed soil reveals thousands of fragments of Cotswold limestone. Turn off once more up an even smaller lane that passes sheep pastures and offers glimpses from the high hills northwards and westwards towards Worcestershire and Wales. And at the end of the track you reach Farmcote, a tiny, isolated hamlet consisting of a few stone houses and a church.

From this angle, St Faith’s, Farmcote, could almost be a Tudor building – the windows and doorway are probably early-16th century and the furnishing inside is a satisfying mixture of Tudor and Jacobean. But in the end wall is a blocked archway indicating that this building was once bigger. Small as it is, the arch would have led to a demolished chancel, and the stonework of the arch is unmistakably Saxon. People have worshipped here for over a thousand years.

The evening light is often beautiful on this west-facing slope. When I first came here is was dusk, and I felt I needed a candle to see the medieval roof timbers and Jacobean furniture. Today there was more light, but it was fading as the sun began to drop behind the next hill. The farm dogs were quiet. The only thing moving was some smoke from a nearby chimney. Restored by the silence I crept back to the car, and drove off, making as little noise as I could.


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire


Stone from the wold

Here’s another repost from ten years ago to entertain my readers during my stretch of pre-Christmas work hyperactivity. It’s a house in the Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold, and a place I always glance at when I pass. Its architecture gives me pleasure – although I do worry that some of the unusual bits of carving on the front are eroding away. The old-fashioned tea shop that used to occupy the ground floor has now closed (there’s a lot of competition in Stow, some of it very impressive), and last time I went by the building looked empty. But the architecture, albeit crumbling at the edges, is still there to enjoy.

Here’s what I wrote about it back in December 2008.

There are some buildings that just make me smile, no matter how often I see them. This is one: a house of about 1730 (now a café) on the market place in Stow-on-the-Wold. What I love about this house is the decoration. It’s Classical, up to a point – look at the fluted pilasters with their Corinthian capitals. But whoever built this place was determined not to stick to the rule book. Those pilasters begin, not with a base, anchoring them to the ground, but with a peculiar block of stone sticking out from the wall, a couple of feet above pavement level. The strips that run up from either side of the central niche, dotted with carvings of flowers, are another odd, but charming, touch.

Pevsner (who describes this façade as ‘rather gauche’) tells us that there’s a local tradition that the building was the work of a pargetter named Shepherd. That’s odd, as pargetting (the art of decorative exterior plasterwork) is native to eastern England. It’s not something you see much round here, where the decorative medium is stone. And yet the exuberance and richness of the carving, especially the flowers, is not unlike the sort of thing you might see on a pargetted house in Essex or Suffolk. It certainly sticks out here, not in the manner of a sore thumb, but like an elegantly manicured digit raised in defiance of convention. Stow off the wall.

As an extra, I add a photograph taken earlier this year showing a detail of one of the stone benches positioned in front of this building. As you can see, they are supported by rather fine lions. A few months ago some protective tape had been put around them – I’m not sure if it’s visitors or the stonework that was being protected, though. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire


Sounds familiar

Christmas is approaching and, as has happened before, I find myself with various uncomfortable work deadlines. Why does the publishing industry organise things in this way? It would take too long to explain and my time is limited at the moment. So I thought I’d look back, see what was happening ten years ago, and repost some of my thoughts back then. Turning to December 2008, what did I find? On 3 December 2008 I was sitting looking at the view of the church tower and thinking virtually the same thoughts. Plus ça change, as they say.

Here’s my post from 3 December 2008:

It’s customary, even in these difficult times, to count the number of shopping days to Christmas. But this year I’m counting the number of writing days left before the publishing business shuts down the corporate computers for the festive season, because I have a Christmas deadline. Travelling to look at old buildings has taken a backseat, and my blog posts may shrink in length and number. I’m fortunate, though, to live in Gloucestershire, a county rich in interesting buildings, so I’ll be putting up some posts about local buildings in the next week or two.

And for me, this is as local as it gets. If I crane my neck a bit, this is the view from my desk. It’s the tower of St Peter’s church, Winchcombe, its Cotswold stone walls glowing in the golden light of a winter’s afternoon a couple of days ago. The church was built in the 1460s, during a building boom in the area that saw many churches acquire new windows, extra aisles, taller towers, or complete makeovers. Winchcombe got its new church through the generosity in part of the abbot of Winchcombe Abbey, whose own church, long gone, was a close neighbour, and of Ralph Boteler, a local grandee – well, not that grand: his name suggests that he came from a rather distinguished family of butlers. The tower is not that grand, either. No elegant spire, as it might have in Northamptonshire; no elaborate carving as there might be in Somerset. Just good honest building in beautiful stone.

The fine weathercock was regilded recently and looked about 5 feet five tall when, swathed in bubblewrap, it was hoisted back up the tower. It came here in 1874 from the much larger church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. According to which version of the story you believe it was either too small or too big for the spire of St Mary Redcliffe. A stonemason who worked on the Bristol spire claimed he’d climbed on to, or into, the cockerel, ‘which was the size of a donkey’. Having seen the bird close-up, I can tell you that’s not such a cock and bull story as it sounds.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Into the light


Adrian Barlow, Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe
Published by Lutterworth Press


Most people who visit churches admire the stained glass, but how many of us know more than a smattering about the people who designed and made church windows? Stained glass certainly isn’t my own area of expertise, and like many others, my knowledge is limited mostly to those who are famous for doing something else – people like Edward Burne-Jones or John Piper. Many stained glass artists are shadowy figures, even if we know their names. One figure whose name is familiar (from countless church guidebooks, from Pevsner) but whose life is little known is the Victorian designer and maker of stained glass Charles Eamer Kempe. Adrian Barlow’s new biography is here to put us right.

Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe tackles the life in the opening chapters . Barlow leads us through his subject’s upbringing: the unhappy prep school years of a shy and stammering boy, the happier times at public school and university. It was a good time for a young man interested in church art to be up at Oxford, with G E Street’s office in the city, William Morris and his friends around (and painting the murals in the Oxford Union library), the study of ecclesiology rife, and the Oxford Movement that worked towards a more ritualistic approach to worship getting going. Oxford also gave Kempe the chance to make visits to churches such as Fairford, across the county border in Gloucestershire, with its stellar late-medieval stained glass. His time there also forced on him the realisation that his stammer would make him unfit for his chosen career in the priesthood. Following Oxford, there are accounts of post-university travels, including Kempe’s discovery of the 15th-century stained glass of Normandy, which influenced his own, and his early work, especially with the great architect G F Bodley, and the setting up of his own studio.

From then on, the studio became Kempe’s life, and the life is one of friendships with colleagues and patrons. Kempe never married, but he was a good friend, and the book deals at length with his relationships with three people who became (if not by name at least in practice) his chief draughtsmen: Wyndham Hope Hughes, John Carter, and John William Lisle. This is where the book is variously illuminating, because these three, and Kempe’s final notable colleague, Walter Tower, all get the attention they deserve. Barlow is able to correct several misconceptions about them. Until recently for example, even the identity of Wyndham Hope Hughes was unclear – he’d long been confused with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes. Barlow is also able to be more even-handed in his assessment of Walter Tower, who has not had a good press in some quarters, and that’s a useful and revealing redress of the balance.

More that all this, there is the glass. These biographical accounts bring out much about how it was produced, and by whom. Kempe is given his considerable due as a creative artist, but so are the other people in his studio – one should not, as the book makes clear, run away with the idea that being a ‘draughtsman’ involved merely the mechanical skills of the copyist. These people were creative, and Kempe’s relationships with them were creative, as were those with Bodley, and with various patrons. Barlow’s assessment of the work is further clarified by case studies of some key projects, backed up by some excellent photographs by Alastair Carew-Cox.

One comes away with a sense of the shape of Kempe’s life, an interesting set of insights into his working methods, and, above all, the sense that he’s a considerable artist. There’s no doubt that Kempe has been undervalued. My own view of him had been tainted by no less a person that Sir John Betjeman (whom I revere, generally), who proclaimed that Kempe’s glass was green and gloomy and, apart from some of the early work, not very good. A rare slip, and a great shame given Betjeman’s prominence and influence. Adrian Barlow’s Kempe will send people back to the work, with much more background knowledge, with a clearer understanding of how his big Victorian studio worked, and, above all, with new enthusiasm and new eyes.

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* Kempe chose Pembroke College, Oxford (or failing that, Corpus, he said, but Pembroke took him).

† Betjeman did not slip up that often, but he did sometimes speak too quickly. He could change his mind though. He began, in his early years at the Architectural Review, as a thorough modernist, but then ditched the white boxes when he realised how wonderful Victorian architecture could be. That change and his subsequent campaigns for threatened Victorian buildings were to his and our lasting benefit, and showed a kind of courage when architects and architectural writers had turned away from everything Victorian. This engagement with the Victorians makes his lapse regarding Kempe both puzzling and sad.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Soft machines for living in


Iain Sinclair, Living with Buildings and Walking with Ghosts 
Published by Profile Books in association with Wellcome Collection

No sooner had Iain Sinclair, apparently tireless writer about London, walker of mean streets, grubber around in corners, tracer of psychogeographical force-fields, and seer of beauty in dilapidation, said his writerly ‘farewell’ to London*, than he’s at it again: walking and writing about the place in an account, made at the behest of the Wellcome Foundation, to explore the relationship between buildings and health. It’s not just London, though, that Sinclair visits. He’s off to Mexico, up to Scotland, and out to Marseille to visit Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation. One almost expects him to reprise some of his visits (made for London Orbital) to the former asylums around the periphery of the capital, but instead, he looks at the site of the Royal Victoria military hospital, Southampton, with its memories of shell-shock. As the title-page of this book suggests, along with buildings come ghosts.

Although a commission, this is an intensely personal book. It comes most alive in the parts (the majority of the book) where he writes about his friends: the hardships they and those around them have faced and the way in which the buildings they occupy and use have affected them. ’Gentle’ is not the first adjective that might occur to one when thinking about Sinclair’s writing – he’s known and savoured for the kind of lively language that threatens to set the page on fire. But gentle, tender even, he can be. Writing about his friend the film-maker Andrew Kötting and his daughter Eden, who lives with Joubert’s Syndrome, Sinclair enumerates the effects of this disorder using the medical terms that it demands (‘hypertonia, ataxia, psychomotor retardation…’) but if this sounds cold, it’s in contrast to the warmth which which Sinclair describes her and her relationship with her father, with whom she early learned to ‘play, collaborate, hug and laugh out loud’. The flat in Deptford’s Pepys Estate that the family occupied when Eden was young might look a cold place too: the area was one in which the council narrowed the rubbish chutes to make it impossible to use them to dispose of ‘inconvenient bodies’. The place is a 1960s mix of low- and high-rise that John Betjeman denounced in a film (flying over Deptford, he concluded, ‘It can’t be right.’) Yet Kötting, his partner Leila Macmillan and their daughter Eden found it a nurturing place, a space they enjoyed living in, where they found friendship and support, and to which they look back fondly.

Sinclair’s book contains several stories concerning people in often challenging circumstances in buildings that might, from outside, seem unforgiving – Emma Matthews and her son Louis in Golden Lane, sculptor Steve Dilworth and his wife Joan on the island of Harris, Jonathan Meades in the Marseilles Unité (which belies its image as an overly hard-edged Corbusian ‘machine for living in’), artist Rebecca Hind at various locations. Sinclair never comes to the obvious conclusions; he doesn’t offer easy answers either. He’s after a more elliptical approach, one that presents the complexity of what we’re dealing with – people, their wellbeing, whole environments not just walls or rooms.

This is a rich book, full of the breadth of allusion that one might expect from Sinclair – Rembrandt, Sir Thomas Browne, W. G. Sebald. It’s studded too with bits of arresting language that make one sit up and pay attention – in a pleasurable way. I relish his turns of phrase, from the disturbing notion of body snatchers as ‘part of the local food chain’, to blazing images like the author burning inside ‘like an owl that has swallowed a firelighter’. It comes, too, with a good dose of Sinclairish appreciation of things ‘counter, original, spare, strange’.† But not just in architecture – in people too. It’s an attitude that is open-minded then, though now and then with a healthy does of scepticism – Sinclair, a doctor’s son, recalls ‘consulting room chatter’ along the lines of ‘Avoid hospitals like the plague’. But it’s animated also by the credo of Simenon’s Maigret and Sinclair’s father: ‘Understand and judge not’. Not a bad motto – for policemen, doctors, architects…and writers too.

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* See Iain Sinclair, The Last London (Oneworld Publications, 2017).

† I’m raiding Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’ here – though where Hopkins found beauty in trout and cows, Sinclair’s epiphanies are more likely to occur when encountering rust or flaking paint.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Dorset reperambulated


Michael Hill, John Newman, and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Dorset
Published by Yale University Press


Another year, another small clutch of revised volumes in Pevsner’s revered Buildings of England series. I’ve chosen Dorset for review because, although it’s not a county I know intimately, it’s a fascinating part of England and one that has given me a lot of pleasure, from its coast and coastal  towns such as Poole and Lyme Regis to inland places like Blandford Forum. I have therefore used the old 1972 edition of Dorset (in which Pevsner himself wrote about the churches while entrusting the secular buildings to John Newman) quite a bit over the years. Dorset has so much interesting architecture: great houses and historic castles, some terrific churches, and a lovely coast – lovely both scenically and architecturally, from Lyme Regis to Poole.

To reflect this richness and like every recent revision in the series, Pevsner’s Dorset has grown considerably (from just over 500 small pages in 1972 to 780 larger pages today), thanks to the addition of new buildings, more detail on those already covered, and the inclusion of structures that lay outside the original remit or that Pevsner and co simply missed – for even Homer nodded, and the busy compilers of the Pevsner epic, especially in a rich county like Dorset, a place of shady nooks and sunken lanes, may be permitted to have nodded in their turn. But Michael Hill, reviser of Dorset, can have left few stones unturned. A major centre like Poole now has a substantial section, incorporating various changes to the built environment and the generally beneficial effect of the conservation areas designated after the 1972 edition came out. The town’s new development is treated with discrimination – the Dolphin quays development criticised for its too-large scale (seven storeys dwarfing the nearby historic buildings), the RNLI College given praise. Poole is also a place to note what Pevsner does not cover. I’ve recently become fascinated by the use of architectural ceramics in Poole. Some of this is mentioned (the Poole Arms on the Quay, with its glowing green tiled gabled front, for example), but some isn’t.

Hill, like the other revisers of books in this series, treads around the original text with care. Gems from the old book remain, like the opening of the entry on Shaftesbury with its yearning quotation from Thomas Hardy’s Jude, all ‘vague imaginings’ and ‘pensive melancholy’, and the 1972 book’s comment on this: ‘Hardy was easily thrown into a pensive melancholy, but these are the right thoughts with which to approach Shaftesbury’. The original description of the famous Gold Hill is retained too, but in the new volume it merits a photograph, and a mention of Gold Hill Museum and its extension of 2011.

Some places, such as Lyme, benefit from large amounts of new detail. Lyme now has three perambulations instead of one, and some of the new detail makes me want to return to the town and look again. There’s apparently a 1930s cinema, unremarkable outside but with an interesting interior (a ’minor Art Deco gem’) and several other older buildings that the original edition did not notice. Hill also updates the coverage of Eleanor Coade’s wonderful house Belmont, with its ‘frenzy of decoration’, covering its recent restoration and the alterations to it which are controversial, but through which Hill tiptoes with tact. When new scholarship is available, Hill is informed by it. In Blandford, for example, Hill is sceptical of the role of the Bastard family as architects of the rebuilt 18th century town and notes that master mason Nathaniel Ireson may well have been responsible for the baroque touches in the town’s Georgian architecture.

The new Dorset is illuminating, then, and manages to incorporate the essence, and much of the text, of the old volume while adding much to it. The photographs are good as usual and there are several of the maps and plans that make the revised volumes still more useful than the old ones. Dorset, then, does well by this small but enchanting county and confirms that the old series in its new guise it still very much alive and kicking.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Homes for heroines


It’s that time of year again: for a week or so this blog is given over to some reviews of new and recent books – for your friends’ Christmas stockings, perhaps, or your own...

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, Prefabs: A Social and Architectural History 
Published by Historic England

In the late-1940s, Britain had to build more houses than ever. A huge chunk had been taken out of the housing stock by bombing – and there were pre-war slums to clear. The call went up again, as it had after World War I, for ‘homes for heroes’. One solution was the prefab – the prefabricated bungalow, mass produced and able to be quickly erected; a way, it was hoped both of filling the housing need and providing work for factories that had made the fighters or bombers that were, mercifully, no longer required in such numbers.

The story of Britain’s postwar prefab has been told before,* but there is room for another book, and especially at this time, when so few prefabs are left and residents of those that do remain are having to fight for the survival of their much loved homes. This new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova tells their story in the light of new research,† a fresh emphasis on their social history, and the sense of the urgency and relevance that’s needed if some of these modest but important buildings – and their histories – are to be preserved.

The book looks at the historical background to prefabrication in building (everything from Paxton’s Crystal Palace to Nissen huts), the modernist architectural context of thinking about prefabrication in the 20th century, and the setting up and implementation of the governments Temporary Housing Programme that brought the prefabs into existence. It deals with the various different designs of prefab (Tarrant, Uni-Secos, AIROHs, and so on), but much of the fine detail here (production figures, costs, number off each type made, etc) is hived off into an appendix, which makes it easy to find and allows the authors’ main narrative to stick more to cultural and social history.

So we learn quite a bit about the people who lived in the prefabs – who they were and, especially, what they thought of their new homes. The reaction, on the whole, was very positive. Many early residents found the prefabs futuristic: not just because of their rapid construction and unusual materials (asbestos, aluminium), or because they had electricity when many houses outside cities did not, but also and especially because of their fitted kitchens and bathrooms, features very rare in British homes of the 1940s and 1950s.§ Women especially liked these, and also praised the fact that prefabs came with gardens – somewhere to grow plants and a place for children to play safely. The interiors were uncluttered and easy to clean too.

Postwar prefabs were greatly loved by their occupants, and the narrative is well supported by residents’ comments and anecdotes, and by historical and recent photographs. But Blanchet and Zhuravlyova don’t gloss over the bungalows’ faults. For example, the heating was not very effective in many of the first prefabs. People complained of the houses getting stuffy in winter and freezing cold in winter. But this was put right later.

The authors extend their survey to look at other kinds of prefabricated housing built after the initial postwar programme, ranging across concrete Airey houses, wooden Swedish houses, and other types. Most of these, unlike the postwar prefabs, were intended to be permanent, and some have lasted well. But to the surprise of many, a few of the postwar prefabs, meant to last a decade, are still going strong, 70 years after construction. Some of the best preserved – those in Moseley, Birmingham, for example, and a small group of what used to be a crowd on the Excalibur Estate in Catford, London – have been listed. If only there were more. Blanchet and Zhuravlyova have done them proud.

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* I have learned much in particular from Brenda Vale’s Prefabs: A History of the UK Temporary Housing Programme and G Stevenson, Palaces for the People. But Vale’s is an academic book focusing on the technical and architectural history and Stevenson’s is most valuable for its excellent pictures – and neither are that easy to obtain. This new book gives a more rounded picture. 

† The authors draw, particularly, on Elisabeth Blanchet’s work with the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which has researched, documented, and archived much material (oral as well as physical) relating to the history of prefabs and their occupants.

§ Some of those moving to prefabs in the 1940s had been used to a lack of: electricity, a fitted kitchen, hot running water, and even, in some places, mains sewers. I remember my own maternal grandparents, living in rural Lincolnshire in the early 1960s: they survived without any of these facilities.